Elements to Include in a Novel’s First 5 Pages – Part 1

Zoe’s book, Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days, is a fresh and innovative refocusing of your novel or novella. Through a few simple—and fun—steps, Zoe helps writers take their not-ready-for-publication and/or rejected manuscripts to a spit-polish finish. Writing is hard work, yes, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. —Eva Marie Everson, best-selling and multiple award-winning author, conference director, president of Word Weavers International, Inc.

Learn more at the end of the post.

Don’t lose potential readers. To pull readers into your story, you’ll want to include six elements in the first five pages. In Part 1, we’ll cover two. The full six will help you to

  • hook your reader;
  • place the reader immediately into your story;
  • ground your reader in the who, where, and when; and
  • persuade the reader your story is worth reading.

1 Intriguing Opening

image by geralt

Begin your story with sentences that make your reader ask a question they want to know the answer to.

Example:

Gretchen wiped tears from her cheeks and breathed in fresh air bearing a pleasant gardenia scent. So this was what being outside felt like. She lifted her face to the sunshine warming her head and shoulders. Her seven-month confinement was over.

Questions the reader might ask:

Where has she been that she hasn’t been outside for seven months? Why was she confined?

2 Grounding the Reader

As soon as possible, let your reader know the who, where, and when.

image by Free-Photos

Suppose after the opening hook and into the second page of the story, Gretchen thinks about the things she wants to do in her new freedom. She rises to her feet and takes a few shaky steps, then turns back and sits down. Then a man adjusts his work hat and says, “Let me help you inside.”

Now your reader is asking different questions, but these questions stem from confusion. Where is Gretchen? What is she sitting on? Who is this man? And he wants to help her inside what?

The reader is confused.

image by Engine_Akyurt

The reader’s possible thoughts:

Where: Is she outside a hospital? Why didn’t people take her outdoors during her long stay? That’s unrealistic. People would have taken her outside in a wheelchair. Maybe she was in a coma. That could be the answer. She’s probably sitting in a wheelchair now.

Who: But wouldn’t someone be beside her to help her? Where’s the person who pushed the wheelchair? Is the man who spoke the one who pushed the wheelchair? Or is he a driver of a car that’ll take her away? Or is he the aide who’ll take her back inside the hospital?

When: Well, at least I know it’s daytime. The man adjusts his work hat. If he’s a taxi or ambulance driver, they don’t wear company hats anymore. Neither would a hospital aide. Maybe the story takes place in the past.

I’m confused!

The reader puts the book down.

Do you really want your reader going through all that rumination?

Grounding after the opening lines:

Gretchen is sitting on a porch step of an old Virginia farmhouse, tears spilling from her eyes. Her seven-month ordeal is over.

Two police cars are parked askew out front. The husband and wife who held Gretchen captive sit cuffed in a police cruiser’s backseat. Sirens blare in the distance.

image by GregMcMahan

The sun has become intense. As Gretchen stands and walks toward a bench under a shade tree, a Virginia State patrol car arrives. The trooper climbs out of the vehicle and adjusts his broad-rimmed campaign hat.

The bright sunlight and Gretchen’s weakness make her woozy. The trooper steps forward and says, “Let me help you to the bench.”

You get the idea.

Join me next month to look at:

  • The protagonist’s ordinary world
  • Hinting at the protagonist’s inner and external goals

What in the first five pages makes you put a book down?

Buy Page

I finished reading Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days. I have AND will highly recommend it to anyone who dabbles in fiction. It’s one of the best “how to” books I’ve ever read.

—Marsha Hubler, Director Montrose Christian Writers Conference

 


If you want to increase your chance of hearing yes instead of sorry or not a fit for our list at this time, this book is for you. If you want to develop stronger story plots with characters that are hard to put down, this book is for you. Through McCarthy’s checklists and helpful exercises and corresponding examples, you will learn how to raise the tension, hone your voice, and polish your manuscript. I need this book for my clients and the many conferees I meet at writer’s conferences around the country. Thank you, Zoe. A huge, #thumbsup, for Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days.  

—Diana L. Flegal, literary agent, and freelance editor

Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript is a self-editing encyclopedia! Each chapter sets up the targeted technique, examples show what to look for in your manuscript, then proven actions are provided to take your writing to the next level. Whether you are a seasoned writer or a newbie, you need this book! 

—Sally Shupe, freelance editor, aspiring author

Need to rework your book? Zoe M. McCarthy’s step-by-step reference guide leads you through the process, helping you fight feeling overwhelmed and wrangle your manuscript into publishable shape in 30 days. Tailor Your Manuscript delivers a clear and comprehensive action plan.

—Elizabeth Spann Craig, Twitteriffic owner, bestselling cozy mystery author of the “Myrtle Clover Mysteries,” the “Southern Quilting Mysteries,” and the “Memphis Barbeque Mysteries,” http://elizabethspanncraig.com/blog/  

Zoe has developed a guiding resource for beginning writers. Her method is designed for brainstorming, shaping, and revising the early draft of a manuscript. General and specific tips are offered for applying rules of writing to enhance one’s story for a workable second draft. By exploring the plot line of Love Comes Softly, writers may examine their own work for stronger plot and characterization. Valuable tools are offered that enable the writer to develop a workable draft in only 30 days!

—Yvonne Lehman, award-winning, best-selling author of 48 novels

Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days is chock-full of practical techniques. Numerous examples clarify problem areas and provide workable solutions. The action steps and blah busters McCarthy suggests will help you improve every sentence, every paragraph of your novel. If you follow her advice and implement her strategies, a publisher will be much more likely to issue you a contract.

—Denise K. Loock, freelance editor, lightningeditingservices.com

A concise, detailed, step by step resource for all writers. 

— Jamie West, editor coordinator, Pelican Book Group

Zoe’s writing blog has always intrigued me. As a high school English teacher, I can attest that her tips on good grammar and her hints for excellent sentence and paragraph structure are spot on. But as an author, I also appreciate her ever-present advice that excellent skills are not enough: you must tell a good story, too. This book clearly shows how to do it all.

—Tanya Hanson, “Writing the Trails to Tenderness,” author of Christmas Lights, Outlaw Heart, Hearts Crossing Ranch anthology, and coming in 2019, Tainted Lady, Heart of Hope, and Angel Heart. www.tanyahanson.com

McCarthy crafted an amazing self-help book that will strengthen any writer, whether new or seasoned, with guidance and self-evaluation tools.

–Erin Unger, author of Practicing Murder, releasing in 2019

Your Story’s Opening Line: Look for the Mystery

image by qimono
image by qimono

I stopped reading “The Chain of Awesomeness” by Jeff Somers (Writer’s Digest July/August 2016). I brought up my first chapter to see if my opening line held the mystery Somers said was more important than shock or coolness (even though they’re good too).

My opening line contained some mystery. The reader might ask why my character was doing what she did. But I continued to read my chapter. Bong! There lay the sentence that had the mystery and the coolness.

image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images
image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

And, I received a bonus. The second line of my new opening paragraph accomplished what Somers said the rest of the first paragraph should do:

“Offer a small amount of satisfaction for the reader who’s just been hooked by your awesome first line, then build on that intrigue.”

 

 

 

First Lines – No Mystery

  • The sun was out full force.
  • I live in California.
  • My name is Dawn.

These first lines don’t prompt the reader to ask a question.

image by Pezibear
image by Pezibear

Better Rewrites:

  • For the first time in a year, Hector saw the sun, and it was out in full force. (Why hadn’t Hector seen the sun in a year?)
  • Due to an accident, I live in California. (What accident caused the protagonist to live in California?)
  • Because of what happened at the first appearance of light on the day I was born, my name is Dawn. (What happened at the first appearance of light? Did the event have something to do with Dawn, the mother, or the town?)

First Lines With Mystery

For fun, I grabbed books from my shelves written before or at the turn of the twentieth century. It seems, even though the writing is different, the authors realized they needed to hook the reader with a mystery. You can see if they provoke a question for you.

  • “‘Mamma, what was that I heard papa saying to you this morning about his lawsuit?’” (Wide, Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell)
    • What lawsuit was brought against the child’s father?
  • “‘Shall I ever be strong in mind or body again?’ said Walter Gregory with irritation as he left the sidewalk and crowded into a Broadway omnibus.” (Opening a Chestnut Burr by Rev. E. P. Roe)
    • What happened that Walter became weak in mind and body?
  • “It was a beautiful morning in the late July when I set forth on foot for the last time for Aros.” (The Merry Men by Robert Louis Stevenson)
    • Why was he going to Aros, and why was it the last time?)
  • “‘And so, dear old thing, I really can’t come.’” (The Marriage of Barry Wicklow by Ruby M. Ayres)
    • Why couldn’t the speaker come?
  • “In an upper chamber, through the closed blinds of which the sun is vainly striving to enter, Reginald Branscombe, fifth Earl of Sartoris, lies dead.” (Faith and Unfaith by The Duchess)
    • How did the Earl die and why is his death important?

Make sure your opening line raises a question for your readers. Click to tweet.

What’s the question you asked in the opening line of the book you’re currently reading?